Happy Birthday, Virginia & The Hours

“For most of history, anonymous was a woman.” Virginia Woolf

a room of ones own vw cover

For me, the above quote perfectly represents Virginia Woolf. Today happens to be her birthday, so, Happy Birthday, Virginia. I was introduced to her by my 9th grade English teacher. I was, at the time, a dreamy, poetic kid with little to recommend me other than good behavior, who listened as she filled our minds with Dickens and Shakespeare. I was only then beginning to appreciate classic literature. I admit my first attempt at reading A Room of One’s Own didn’t get very far. I tried again, sometime after high school. I could not appreciate it. Years later, I read Mrs. Dalloway, and bemoaned what I had been missing. I went back to A Room of One’s Own… and still found it a little dry. I then read Jacob’s Room and was lost completely.

Despite my narrow experience with her work (considering one novel genius, finding another unapproachable and being admittedly bored by her most famous essay) I read a few biographies about her. They often present more questions than answers. This goes beyond the debate if she was manic depressive (that was the term used in the books I read, which is now referred to as bipolar) or schizophrenic (it would describe the voices she mentions). Was she a lesbian? Was she asexual, despite her marriage? What affect did sexual abuse play in her adult life? Does all of the above come down to the sexual abuse, or was there something genetic in the mix?

Though she isn’t someone whose work I am completely gaga for, I find this woman absolutely fascinating. Despite flares of crippling mental illness, she married, she lived a full life, she wrote. Then when she couldn’t take it anymore, when the headaches and the voices started up again, she took her own life. Before she did, she wrote what might have been the most eloquent suicide letter ever penned. Now, I don’t think the suicide of an artist is a romantic thing. It’s a tragedy. But I also can’t imagine the pain she suffered, physical and mental, and the archaic “treatments” she was subjected to, which we know could only have exacerbated her condition.

When I heard about the movie The Hours being made, and the (initially) shocking news that Nicole Kidman was going to portray Woolf, I was interested. When I learned it was a book (written by Michael Cunningham) I snapped it up from the library. I would like to personally thank Nicole Kidman for bringing this book into my life.

the hours

These days, Clarissa believes, you measure people first by their kindness and their capacity for devotion. You get tired, sometimes, of wit and intellect; everybody’s little display of genius.  Michael Cunningham, The Hours

Here is the blurb:

The Hours tells the story of three women: Virginia Woolf, beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway as she recuperates in a London suburb with her husband in 1923; Clarissa Vaughan, beloved friend of an acclaimed poet dying from AIDS, who in modern-day New York is planning a party in his honor; and Laura Brown, in a 1949 Los Angeles suburb, who slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home. By the end of the novel, these three stories intertwine in remarkable ways, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace.

The Hours is the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

I’m going to cheat here, and just post my review from Goodreads, only because it’s been a few months since I’ve read The Hours and I always prefer a fresh review, written without nostalgia. I find I read it at least once a year. And though Mrs. Dalloway is still my favorite Woolf work (I have since read Monday or Tuesday, a short story collection and enjoyed it enough for 4 stars) I feel a connection to her as a woman, a writer, and a person. That feeling was increased by reading The Hours, even though I know it is only a fictional account of her life, and of only one short period in her life. Below is my review.

The Hours is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m also a huge fan of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which inspired the book. So many literary works lack plot in lieu of beautiful prose/intense characterization. This isn’t one of those books. Cunningham deftly weaves three characters in three different times together, bringing them together in a very unexpected way. He said in an interview this book is about a writer, a reader, and a character, but this never feels like a “gimmick”. It’s also one of those rare books that plumbs the depths of feminine struggles (with madness, family, the strain of our crazy everyday lives and what they expect from us, even touching on illness (AIDS) and sexuality) with a delicate hand. I never once was pulled out of the story thinking what does this man know about women and how they feel and how they react? He treats “women’s problems” like human problems. He also deals with love in the same way – it’s just love, not heterosexual love vs. lesbian vs. gay love.

There is just this for consolation: an hour here or there, when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined , though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so. Michael Cunningham, The Hours


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